Syria Gains Stability as Upheaval Threatens Its Middle East Neighbors

Not only is Syria's Assad not at risk of falling victim to a revolution, but recent moves by neighbors to bring him into the fold have left him stronger than ever.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Last week, Syrian president Bashar Assad had the chance to bolster his country's status in the Middle East. Following six years during which the Egyptians had boycotted Damascus, the Syrian ambassador to Cairo, Yousef el-Ahmed, was invited to a meeting with Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian Defense Minister and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is currently running the country, who handed him a letter to Assad.

Tantawi said in the letter that he was "hoping to open a new page in the relations between Syria and Egypt on the basis of the ties that existed in the past and those we hope to maintain."

A Syrian flag with portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad decorating the street scene as shoppers look of souvenirs in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 5, 2011Credit: AP

Assad, who had awaited a letter of reconciliation - which never arrived - from deposed president Hosni Mubarak, hastened to send a warm reply to Tantawi. He wished Egypt "a great deal of success, stability and the return to its natural role in the Arab world."

Assad and Tantawi also agreed to cooperate and hold comprehensive joint consultations. It is now thought likely that Tantawi will be invited to pay a state visit to Syria at the end of April or the beginning of May.

The reconciliation with Syria is perhaps the first significant foreign relations step Egypt has taken under Tantawi. The initiative may be indicative of the differences of opinion that existed between Tantawi and Mubarak over ties with Damascus.

Relations between the two countries soured at the start of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, after Assad called the leaders of the Arab states "half-men" for pulling support from Hezbollah and even condemning the militants.

This pushed Syria into a lonely corner while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan decided on an informal boycott of Damascus. However, in 2009, Saudi Arabia decided to break away from the boycott and Saudi King Abdullah paid a first state visit to Syria in October of that year.

Riyadh, which wished to solve the crisis in Lebanon in the wake of the international court's investigation into the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, realized that Syria would have to be engaged. It also believed renewed ties with Assad might be able to assist it in stemming the Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The visit by the Saudi monarch served to puff up Assad's status in the Middle East. His country went from being called one of the heads of the new, non-Arab, axis in which Turkey and Iran were also members to becoming an important player in the Arab world, while Egypt instead became marginalized.

What helped Assad hurt Abdullah, though. The crisis in Lebanon is continuing and Saad Hariri, Riyadh's man in Beirut, has failed to form a government. Meanwhile, the ties between Iran and Syria are growing stronger.

Last week, Syrian prime minister Mohammad Naji Otari visited Tehran and signed a number of agreements there for commercial cooperation.

These agreements, which come on the heels of other agreements, are less important than the actual visit, which was intended to send a message that Syria has no intention of amending its ties with Iran at the behest of international parties.

This does not mean that Syria is not interested in furthering a peace deal with Israel, only that it won't let such an agreement be contingent on severing ties with Iran.

Assad can now present Syria to the world as "an island of stability" in the stormy Middle East, since it is one of the only poor countries in the region where there were no real protests against the regime.

This despite the fact that Syrians have even more reason to revolt than Egyptians or Tunisians. Unemployment in Syria stands at some 20 to 25 percent (officially 10 percent ) and the Syrian economy is based on monopolies held by those close to the rulers.

According to the 2010 perceived corruption index by Transparency International, Syria was ranked the 127th cleanest country in the world, out of 178 nations (Egypt ranked 98 ). The World Bank has placed Syria in 143rd place on a scale of 183 countries with regard to encouraging investments.

Thanks to muckraking websites, it is no secret that the Assad family has accumulated great wealth.

Numerous reports have been published by the U.S. State Department about the lack of freedom of speech in Syria, although no denunciation of this has been heard in recent months from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. None of this is getting in the way of Syria's attempt to take over the place vacated by Libya in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The average wage in Syria today stands at some $300 per month but some 14 percent of the country's 20 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. It is true that Syria hastened, at the end of last month, to distribute money to some 420,000 of the poorest families - about $70 a month per person - but it is unlikely that this sum can serve as sucre to calm the population.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that these economic conditions are similar to those in Egypt or Yemen, Syria is no powder keg about to explode into a popular revolt.

It may be possible to attribute this to the powerful control and supervision of the Syrian security forces and to the memory of the 1982 Hama massacre, in which tens of thousands of Syrians were mowed down and shelled by the army, which was trying to to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The upshot of all this is that Assad, who told the Wall Street Journal that political reform in his country would wait until the next generation, can now be satisfied, or at least calm. Batsheva Tsur Etzion



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